Tony Bennett: What an Inspiration!

Anthony Dominic Benedetto was born on August 3, 1926 in Queens New York. His mother was a seamstress and his father was an Italian immigrant who worked as a grocer and instilled in his son a love of art, literature and compassion for human suffering. He died when Tony was just 10 years old. That year Tony sang at the opening of the Triborough bridge. He began singing professionally at age 13 performing as a singing waiter at several Italian restaurants in Queens. He attended New York school of industrial art studying painting and music but dropped out at the age of 16 to help support his family working several low skilled low paying jobs. He fought in World War II in the US Army as an infantry rifle man. In March 1945 he joined the front line in what he later described as a front row seat in hell. He experienced bitter fighting in cold winter conditions often hunkering down in foxholes as the Germans fired on them. Bennett and his company entered Germany engaging in dangerous house to house fighting in town after town to clean out German soldiers. Bennett narrowly escaped death several times. The experience made him a pacifist. He wrote “Anybody who thinks that war is romantic obviously hasn’t gone through one, and later said it was a nightmare that’s permanent. “I just said this is not life this is not life.” At the wars conclusion he was involved in the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp near Landsberg.

His first number one song was because of you in 1951. rags to riches and stranger in paradise followed in 1953. And in 1962 Bennett recorded his signature song I left my heart in San Francisco, which won Grammy awards for record of the year and best male solo vocal performance.

Frank Sinatra said “For my money Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business. He excites me when I watch him. He moves me. He’s the singer who gets across what a composer has in mind, and probably a little more.”

A firm believer in the civil rights movement Bennett participated in the march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery AL in 1965. He also refused to perform in apartheid South Africa. His career and personal life experienced an extended downturn during the height of the rock music era. By the end of the 1970s Bennett had no recording contract, no manager, and was performing few concerts outside of Las Vegas. He had developed a drug addiction, was living beyond his means, and the IRS was intending to seize his Los Angeles home. In 1979 after a near fatal cocaine overdose Bennett called his two sons for help saying: look I’m lost here. it seems like people don’t want to hear the music I make.” His son Danny then became his father’s manager and succeeded in getting his fathers expenses under control, moved him back to New York and began booking him in colleges and small theaters. He also began a successful plan to pay back the IRS, and began to regularly book his father on late night with David Letterman, on late night with Conan O’Brien, the Simpsons, Muppets Tonight, and various MTV programs. Bennett staged a come back in the late 1980s and 90s.

Bennett has so frequently donated his time to charitable causes that he is sometimes nicknamed Tony benefit. In 2010 Bennett sang on the we are the World 25 for Haiti to raise aid after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. He has received the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees humanitarian award.

He wrote: “there is simply no excuse for terrorism and the murder of the nearly 3000 innocent victims of the 9/11 attacks on our country. My life experiences ranging from the battle of the bulge to marching with Martin Luther King made me a lifelong humanist and pacifist, and reinforced my belief that violence begets violence and that war is the lowest form of human behavior.

In 2011 Columbia records released a 73 CD set which is not even complete! In 2012 Bennett performed I left my heart in San Francisco in front of more than 100,000 fans commemorating the 2012 World Series victory by the San Francisco Giants. That year he published another memoir, life is a gift: the Zen of Bennett and a documentary was produced by his son Danny also entitled the Zen of Bennett.

In 2016 at the age of 90 Bennett was honored by the unveiling of a statue of his likeness in front of the Fairmont hotel in San Francisco where he first sang I left my heart in San Francisco in 1961. In 2018 after almost 69 years, he re-recorded Gershwin’s song fascinating rhythm which according to Guinness world records earned him the title of longest time between the release of an original recording and a re-recording of the same single by the same artist.

Bennett was commissioned by the United Nations to do two paintings including one for its 50th anniversary. His painting Central Park is housed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC. Each of his paintings and drawings sell for as much as $80,000! Many of his works were published in the art books Tony Bennett: what my heart has seen and Tony Bennett in the studio: a life of art and music.

Regarding his choices of repertoire he stated I’m not staying contemporary for the big record companies I don’t follow the latest fashions I never sing a song that’s badly written. In the 1920s and 30s there was a renaissance in music that was the equivalent of the artistic renaissance. Cole Porter Johnny Mercer and others just created the best songs that had ever been written. these are classics and finally they’re not being treated as light entertainment. this is classical music.”

He is a recipient of New York City’s bronze medallion, the national endowment for the arts jazz masters award, a star on the Hollywood walk of fame and has been honored by the art institute of Boston, Roosevelt University’s musical college George Washington University, the Cleveland Institute of music, the Juilliard school, Fordham University, and is the recipient of an honorary doctorate from the Berkeley College of music.

He has received 19 Grammy awards including a lifetime achievement award and 2 PrimeTime family awards. He was named a national endowment of the arts jazz master and a Kennedy Center honoree. Bennett has sold over 50 million records worldwide, several of them have gone gold and platinum.

As the New York Times put it “Tony Bennett has not just bridged the generation gap, he has demolished it. He has solidly connected with a younger crowd weaned on rock. And there have been no compromises.”

His duet with the Jewish pop singer, Amy Winehouse on body and Soul was the last recording she made before her death.

He has attracted acclaim for his collaborations with Lady Gaga starting with the album cheek to cheek in 2014 and the release of their second album love for sale in 2021. The cheek to cheek album earned him the Guinness world record for the oldest person to reach number one on the US album chart with a newly recorded album at the age of 88 years and 69 days. In 2014 Bennett performed for the first time in Israel in Tel Aviv and with Lady Gaga at Hayarkon Park.

Bennett broke the individual record for the longest span of top 10 albums on the Billboard 200 chart for any living artist. He also broke the Guinness world record for the oldest person to release an album of new material at the age of 95 and 60 days. Bennett’s final televised performance was with Lady Gaga on December 16, 2021 on MTV unplugged. The special had been filmed five months before.

He had no intention of retiring saying about Pablo Casals, Jack Benny, and Fred Astaire: “right up to the day they died they were performing. if you are creative you get busier as you get older.” Bennett continued to record and tour steadily doing 100 shows a year by the end of the 90s. The good life: the autobiography of Tony Bennett was published in 1998 and he has sold over 50 million record worldwide.

In February of 2021 his family revealed that Bennett was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2016. Due to the slow progression of his illness he continued to record, tour, and perform. In August of 2021 at the age of 95 he performed at radio city music hall in New York City with Lady Gaga. A week later his son announced his retirement stating that though his father remained a capable singer he was becoming physically frail and risked a major fall if he were to continue touring.
Bennett died in New York in 2023. He was 96 years young.